5 December 2019
Pro-Beijing protesters perform a mock funeral ceremony for Next Media chairman Jimmy Lai outside the media group's headquarters. Photo: CNSA
Pro-Beijing protesters perform a mock funeral ceremony for Next Media chairman Jimmy Lai outside the media group's headquarters. Photo: CNSA

What the Apple Daily siege means for press freedom

For three days, Apple Daily was prevented from delivering newspapers by a group of protesters who had been blocking entrances to its main building in Tseung Kwan O.

The protesters were opposed to the democracy movement in which Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is a key figure.

The siege, which began on Sunday, came despite calls for help to the police from the newspaper.

It took a restraining order from the High Court on Tuesday morning to restore order but the damage to a core Hong Kong value had been done.

How did it get to this? Did the police simply stand aside and watch as the occupiers helped themselves to a chunk of private property? 

That aside, the real harm was in Apple Daily being prevented from performing a vital public function as a media organization protected by the guarantees of free speech.

This was the first time it happened to Apple Daily since it first hit the streets in 1995.

On Sunday, a lorry blocked an entrance to the building and the next day, hundreds of well-organized activists began occupying the premises, blocking another entrance and preventing news agents from collecting the newspaper. The next thing you know, there were tents all around.

The activists were still hunkered down when the High Court issued the restraining order. Some were reportedly paid to join the siege. 

Apple Daily is only now counting its losses.

A massive hacking attack on its computers on Monday was too much of a coincidence. It prevented employees from logging in for three hours and also crashed the internal e-mail system.

Chief editor Cheung Kim-hung said Lai, several executives and employees received more than 200 threatening phone calls, some from outside Hong Kong and others anonymous.

Earlier, Cheung expressed concern about a purported campaign by a pro-Beijing group to disrupt the newspaper’s operations as punishment for its support for the ongoing student protest.

Interestingly, the police did not intervene during the occupation of Apple Daily’s grounds. No warnings were issued, no effort made to disperse the crowd.

That gave the impression that the police were only too willing to allow the occupation to continue, if not indirectly encourage it.

Apple Daily is a concern to pro-Beijing groups who want it shut down because of its outspoken stance on social and political issues and for being critical of the communist elite in Beijing.

It became an even bigger pain after openly supporting Occupy Central, the civil disobedience movement which inspired the student protest.

Opponents of the newspaper who claim to be guardians of neutrality can do better than upend press freedom by killing a legitimate voice that just happens to be different from theirs.

Instead, they could compete in the marketplace of ideas by launching their own media outlet to promote their agenda. In the case of pro-Beijing groups, they could have their own newspaper.

Still, pro-Beijing groups don’t see the benefit of such an idea because it could escalate tensions between them and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp.

The incident at Apple Daily did not only disrupt its business but also that of the International New York Times which it prints and distributes.

More importantly, it created a bad impression of Hong Kong and how it deals with core social values such as freedom of the press at a time when the local media is perceived to be too eager to do no harm to Beijing.

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EJ Insight writer